Demagogic political rhetoric has a colorful, long history

The fight over extending the payroll tax cut is as interesting to watch for the political rhetoric pitched by pols as it is for the actual arguments. Watch the debate sometime via C-Span and you’ll get the idea that the opposing side ought to not only be defeated, but tarred, feathered and tossed out of town. It got me thinking about the long history of political rhetoric and demagoguery. It’s nothing new, and the tone has not gotten worse, as solemn comfortable, white-haired pundits like to tell us. One of the more (in)famous examples comes 1950, where the Washington Post reported on the 1950 U.S. Senate race in Florida:  It’s Just Fantasy — Not Fascist , By Stewart Alsop , Washington Post; Apr 2, 1950; p. B5:    

“The political enemies of Senator Claude Pepper of  Florida are said to have hit on a remarkable device.  Throughout the Florida backwoods, according to a story going the Washington rounds, the unfortunate Senator is  being described in the following spine-chilling terms: 

“Why, J. Edgar Hoover…the whole FBI and every member  of Congress knows that Claude Pepper is” — a breathless  pause — “a shameless extrovert. Moreover, there is reason to believe that he practices nepotism with his  sister-in-law, and that his sister has been a thespian in sinful New York. Finally — and this is hard to believe — it is well known that before Pepper was married he regularly practiced” — a more breathless pause — “celibacy.”

“As far as is known, although he is certainly uninhibited; and was certainly once a bachelor, the Senator has never employed a sister-in-law, and his sister has never been an actress. Yet denials will do no good. And among those Florida voters with limited vocabularies, there is said to be much honest indignation at these horrifying revelations. The Pepper forces are seriously worried.”

They had good reason — The”matriculating” Pepper was defeated on election day by George Smathers, who until his dying day denied being behind the verbal smear campaign.

I have one more example of political demagoguery, and though it’s from 1949, it’s quite similar to what we hear today. It’s an attack on President Harry Truman, put into the congressional record, by GOP Rep. Clarence J. Brown, R-Ohio. Brown’s response to a speech by Truman was delivered in verse. From the November 4, 1949 New York Daily News, (courtesy of Standard-Examiner reader Jean L. Morrison of Mountain Green) here is “Ode to the Welfare State”:

DEMOCRATIC DIALOGUE: “Father, must I go to work?

No, my lucky son

We’re living on Easy Street

On dough from Washington

We’ve left it up to Uncle Sam,

So don’t get exercised

Nobody has to give a damn –

We’ve all been subsidized

But if Sam treats us all so well

And feeds us milk and honey

Please, daddy, tell me what the hell

He’s going to use for money

Don’t worry, bub, there’s not a hitch

In this here noble plan –

He simply soaks the filthy rich

And helps the common man

But father, won’t there come a time

When they run out of cash

And we have left them not a dime

When things will go to smash?

My faith in you is shrinking, son,

You nosy little brat;

You do too damn much thinking, son

To be a Democrat.

He may not be any great shakes as a poet, but I’m beginning to think the late Rep. Brown may have been a political prophet.

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5 Responses to Demagogic political rhetoric has a colorful, long history

  1. Bob Becker says:

    My favorite political retort involves Teddy Roosevelt. Story goes he was campaigning by train, and at one whistle stop out in the country, a heckler told him “My great granddaddy was a Democrat, my granddaddy was a Democrat, my daddy was a Democrat and I’m a Democrat!”

    Miffed and determined to get the better of him and to challenge the notion that political affiliation was inherited, TR came back with “Well, Sir, suppose your great granddaddy was a jackass, your granddaddy was a jackass, and your daddy was a jackass. What would that make you?”

    To which the heckler replied without missing a beat, “A Republican.”

    True tale? Who knows. But it’s one of those stories that, if isn’t true, it should be.

    • Doug says:

      That’s a great anecdote, Bob. Of course, the greatest display of physical rhetoric was southern Democrat Rep. Preston Brooks caning Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner over a debate about slavery in 1856. Could you imagine that occurring today!?

    • Owain says:

      Churchill was the best.

      When Nancy Astor said to Churchill: “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee.”, Winston riposted with: “Nancy, if I were your husband, I would drink it.”

      On being acosted as he left a House of Commons bar by Bessie Braddock who said to him: “Winston, you’re drunk!” he replied with “Madam, you’re ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober.”

      “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is ready for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

      • Doug Gibson says:

        There are just so many classic examples out there. Thanks for sharing Owain. I wonder if anyone has ever wrote a book devoted to political quips, insults, retorts … It’d be interesting.

  2. Ray says:

    This is a topic I’ve always hoped more individuals would write about! Thank you! Also your first example intrigued me and I found a great article online which further discussed the issue. It mentioned some other historical examples of political “quasi malediction” (like labeling people as sexagenarians) and also provided a strong argument in supporting Smathers claims of innocence in the matter. Overall an interesting accompaniment to this. Thanks again for the great article.

    -You can find the article I mentioned here:

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